Sunday, November 20, 2011

Life cycle: the wheel goes 'round / b.Sanhedrin 92a

The term “life cycle” is tossed around a lot. Certainly, a community experiences birth, growth, marriage, aging, and death, and then more births in its midst. But does an individual experience a life cycle? I was born, I go through various stages of life, and then I die. How is that a cycle? For the Rabbis it was a perfect cycle: birth, all the stages of life, death, resurrection/rebirth. The belief in resurrection of the dead affirmed for them a true life cycle.

We are still amidst the Rabbis’ epic effort to prove that resurrection of the dead derives from the Torah. They have pulled out nearly all the stops, threatening the loss of olam haba (the world-to-come), citing numerous verses creatively interpreted, and envisioning court cases before Alexander the Great that affirmed their view. Very near the bottom of daf 92a is a passage I take as a unit (though far more learned and esteemed scholars of Talmud disagree).
And R. Elazar said: Whoever looks at a woman’s genitals, his bow will be empty, as it says, Your bow is stripped bare (Habbakuk 3:9).

And R. Elazar said: Be forever in the dark and live.

R. Zeira said: Also we have learned this: We do not open windows in a dark house to see its plague [referring to mishnah Nega’im 2:3]. Learn from this.

R. Tavi said in the name of R. Yoshiyah: What is the meaning of the grave, a barren womb, earth that cannot get enough water (Proverbs 30:16)? What is the connection between the grave and the closed [barren] womb? It is to teach you [that] just as the womb takes in and expels, so too does the grave take in and expel. And in fact these are a kal va’chomer: If a womb, into which things are deposited quietly, and from which things emerge noisily, then [concerning] the grave, into which we deposit things noisily, isn’t it logical that things emerge [from the grave] amidst great noise? From here [we have] a response to those who say that resurrection of the dead does not derive from Torah.
The Rabbis are attempting to prove resurrection from Torah. R. Elazar opens with an image of marital intimacy, the quintessential act that brings new life into the world. If you look at your wife’s genitals in the course of lovemaking, however, your bow I stripped bare. (Please see my note at the bottom of this blog post for more on whether R. Elazar was standing on solid ground with this claim.) At first glance we might think that the verse from Habbakuk applies to the wife, but R. Elazar surprises us and applies it to the husband: the man who looks at his wife’s genitals will suffer either impotence or sterility (I’m not sure which; perhaps he means either). This behavior will result in the diminution of life - a kind of death. Lovemaking intended to engender new life, will achieve the opposite.

Understood this way, his counsel to “be forever in the dark and live” makes sense. He cannot see what he shouldn’t be looking at in a dark room. In other words, give up those romantic candles and buy room-darkening blinds. Perhaps there is a very subtle hint here of where we’re going. Being in the dark to generate new life parallels or foreshadows the dark of the grave, which precedes rebirth by resurrection. From birth to death to life after death.

R. Zeira offers us much the same message, but in citing Nega’im (the tractate about tzara’at, skin afflictions that affect people, clothing, and homes) he suggests that this behavior will bring a plague upon your house. All the good of intimacy gives way to loss, death and disease if you don’t “follow the rules.” From birth to death.

We begin with a fertile womb that doesn’t conceive because of inappropriate sexual behavior. The images of male sterility (diminution of life, death of the potential to have children) and plagues sets us up for R. Tavi’s interpretation of Proverbs 30:16. R. Tavi quotes a snippet from the middle of the verse. (The entire verse, with R. Tavi’s phrase bolded, is: The leech has two daughters, “Give!” and “Give!” Three things are insatiable; four never say, “Enough!”: the grave, a barren womb, earth that cannot get enough water, and fire that never says, “Enough!”) R. Tavi uses this excerpted phrase to equate the grave and the womb, and then apply the argument of kal va’chomer (a fortiori argument) to them. The argument goes like this: Proverbs 30:16 juxtaposes “womb” and “grave” to tell us that they evince the same phenomenon. Sperm is quietly deposited into the womb, but the baby that emerges is noisy. The process goes from quiet to noisy. The grave must therefore follow that same pattern. We deposit the body into the grave amidst the noise of crying and mourning; therefore (1) something must emerge from the grave (as from the womb); and (2) what emerges must be extremely noisy. In the minds of the Rabbis this must mean that people are resurrected to the noise of the messianic age. Hence we derive resurrection from Proverbs 30:16.

Then why the conversation launched by R. Elazar before it? The passage begins with an image of life and procreation -- a couple engaged in lovemaking. Conception and birth. R. Zeira introduces the idea of plague -- it may cause death. Conception, life, then death. R. Tavi’s interpretation of Proverbs 30:16 “proves” resurrection of the dead. We have the process: birth, life, death, rebirth/resurrection.


This passage initially caught my eye because it opens with a claim similar to one found elsewhere in the Talmud, in masechet Nedarim, daf 20. There the Rabbis handily and brilliantly dismantle the claim that a husband should not look between his wife’s legs at her genitals.

Nedarim 20 features a protracted discussion of sexual practices, arrived at by branching off from the main topic twice. R. Yochanan b. Dahabai claims to have learned four things from the Ministering Angels: a man should not engage in anal sex with his wife, nor kiss her genitals, nor converse with her while engaged in lovemaking, nor even look at her genitals. (Puritanical, no? It was H.L. Mencken who defined Puritanism as, “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy.” R. Yochanan b. Dahabai sounds like he’s from that school.) The Rabbis then recount Ima Shalom’s testimony that her husband, R. Eliezer, engaged in the most modest sex imaginable, never uncovering more than a few square inches of her skin at a time. The Sages then cleverly turn her testimony upside down and use it not only to permit talk during lovemaking, but to laud it. The notoriously strict and stringent R. Eliezer now becomes the model for a liberal attitude toward marital intimacy. But wait! R. Yochanan b. Dahabai claimed he learned the four prohibitions from heaven. The Rabbis are able to dismiss R. Yochanan b. Dahabai’s rules altogether by saying that “Ministering Angels” is merely a polite term for rabbis; hence his rules are simply the opinion of some. In fact, they now tell us, a husband and wife may do whatever they wish because -- as R. Yehudah haNasi unequivocally affirms -- Torah does not regulate consensual sexual acts between a husband and wife. Torah is concerned only with emotional states, especially those that might lead to violence.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

On prooftexting and Humpty Dumpty / Sanhedrin 92a

A man has had a successful business for decades. It is now going down the drain. Despondent, he seeks his rabbi’s advice, thinking that if he cannot find help, he will commit suicide.

The rabbi listens to the man’s tale of woe and offers this advice: “The Torah contains the answers to everything in life, including your problem. Take a chumash and beach chair and drive to the beach. Sit at the water’s edge, open the chumash, and let the wind blow it open. When the chumash stays open on a certain page, you will find your answer there.”

The man does precisely as his rabbi instructed. Three months later, he returns with his wife to the rabbi. He is wearing a $1500 Italian hand-tailored suit; his wife is wearing a beautiful silk dress and expensive jewelry. The man hands the rabbi a generous check and says, “Rabbi, your advice worked wonderfully. I want to donate this money to the synagogue.”

“Which words in the Torah brought this good fortune?” the rabbi asks.

The man replies, “Chapter 11.”

Prooftexting has a bad name among academics, and from an academic perspective deservedly so. The isolated use of biblical verses to prove the “truth” of a religious claim is hardly new. It is the S.O.P. of the Talmud. Often verses are decontextualized, which is a neutral, academic term meaning: wrenched out of context, original intent is ignored, they are made to mean something entirely different. When Alice objects to Humpty Dumpty’s definition of “glory” as “a nice knock-down argument,” Humpty Dumpty replies, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.” Substitute “verse” for “word” and you get the picture.
Chapter ten of Sanhedrin is a magnificent compendium of prooftexts to argue that resurrection of the dead derives from Torah.

In the section that follows, biblical verses are used slightly differently, but essentially this is a form of prooftexting. R. Elazar will argue that when a term is sandwiched between two divine names, that proves it is of special significance. This short passage is a tight unit by itself, and a lovely homily, as well.
R. Elazar said: Dei’ah is great because it was mentioned between two divine names, as it says, For the Lord is an all-knowing God (I Samuel 2:3).

R. Elazar said: The Temple (mikdash) is great because it was mentioned between two divine names, as it says, [in the place] that You made, Lord; in the sanctuary [mikdash] that your hands established (Exodus 15:17).

Rav Adda Karchina’ah objected: But now vengeance is great, for it is mentioned between two divine names, as it says, God to whom vengeance belongs; God to whom vengeance belongs shine forth (Psalms 94:1)

[R. Elazar] said to [Rav Adda Karchina’ah]: Because it is an important matter, it is as Ulla said: Why are there these two appearances [of the term “vengeance”, not one appearance as with dei’ah and mikdash]? One for a measure of good, and one for a measure of punishment.

R. Elazar said: Any person who possesses dei’ah, it is as if the Temple were built in his days because this [dei’ah] was mentioned between two divine names, and this [mikdash] was mentioned between two divine names.
The term Dei’ah, which I left in transliteration, means “knowledge” or “insight” or “wisdom.” That’s a lot of meaning for one word to hold. These are the facets of Talmud Torah, the Rabbis' enterprise.

R. Elazar’s methodology is simple: where a term is found in a verse with a name of God before it and after it, that signifies that it is extremely important and valuable. Dei’ah (knowledge, insight, wisdom, all the facets of Torah study) and Mikdash (either the sanctuary in the wilderness of later the Temple in Jerusalem, where God was served through sacrifices) fit the bill.

This simple structure -- a term sandwiched between two names of God -- opens the door to a raft of pasuk hunting. What other verses possess that characteristic? To what else then is Scripture ascribing greatness? Rav Adda Karchina’ah brings us an example that would seem to imply that “vengeance” must be a great thing according to R. Elazar’s methodology. R. Elazar has no trouble dismissing it because he finds the term “vengeance” twice in the verse and can interpret it to mean both the good kind of vengeance (presumably my vengeance against another?) and the bad kind of vengeance (presumably another vengeance against me?). To our minds, yet another scriptural slight of hand. To R. Elazar, completely legitimate.

R. Elazar now employs yet another rabbinic interpretative trick, a gezeira shava: since both Dei’ah and Mikdash share this distinction, they must be connected. The connection he draws for us is beautiful: one who possesses Dei’ah (understood here as Talmud Torah -- Torah knowledge and wisdom), it as if through his studies he has effectively built a Temple in his own day. Where once the Jewish People served God though sacrifices offered on an altar in the prescribed precinct of the Mikdash, now they serve God through Talmud Torah, the study of Torah. The “program of the rabbis” is furthered by this claim: it’s now all about Torah study.

We read in Pirke Avot (1:2), Shimon ha-Tzddik taught: Al shelosha devarim… The world depends upon three things: Torah [study], Avodah [worship, service], and Gemilut chasadim [deeds of loving kindness]. If we take a closer look, Torah is named first. It is the center post holding up the roof. Avodah has now been defined by R. Elazar as Torah study, Gemilut chasadim is the outgrowth of Torah study. In sum: The world is sustained by Talmud Torah, which serves God and humanity.

There is much truth to that. Torah tells us that the Jewish People came into existence to share our portion of God’s wisdom with the world. This is neither an exclusive claim to wisdom, nor a mandate to convert others. But it does define the Jewish mission: to share the wisdom of Torah with those seeking wisdom.

How well are we succeeding? If I were to be at all honest, I would have to see that we are doing a mediocre job at best. And that’s a generous evaluation. In our day we spend out time in internecine battles over legal trivialities, many centered on kashrut, which are a thin veneer for authority and turf battles. Or we argue about whose interpretation of Judaism is more valid. So unbecoming and such a tragic waste of human time and energy.

Our texts and the way we study them offer priceless riches for exploring the universal questions of humanity: What does it mean to be human? Does my life have purpose? How should we respond to evil? How can I fulfill my potential? How should I raise my children? How should I treat others? What are the attributes of a righteous community? How do we build one? How should community leaders behave? What are our obligations to the poor and homeless? How do we best take care of the sick and suffering? How should we deal with people who are different from us? How do we work our way to peace? Torah is not a textbook for looking up answers -- it is a way to work through the questions to find one’s own answers.

It seems to me that R. Elazar got it right after all.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman